WARNING! Potential spoilers of the following: Red Dragon (book & 2002 movie), Manhunter (1986 movie), Collateral (2004 movie with Tom Cruise in, I don’t even know why?)
I’ve approached Red Dragon in entirely the wrong order. I always do, actually. My main motivation for reading a book is having just seen the movie. I know that books are better than film adaptations, or I know that platitude well. It just doesn’t work for me.
I love the TV show Hannibal. It wasn’t instant love, but the slow motion elks, and Day-Glo sixth sense, sold it. So did Mads Mikkelsen licking lips each time he saw a patient, or Hugh Dancy, inspiring YouTubers worldwide to dedicate love songs to the pair, zooming in on each elongated look, wrapping euphemistic dialogue on top of it, having Hannibal virgins believe it’s a love story between cop and cannibal. And it is, sort of. But no fucking. Yet.
Seeing the show spurred me to read the books. Then watch the films. Then re-watch the TV show. It’s a circle-jerk of Hannibal appreciation. Will you join me?
The source material’s good. Not great: there’s no taut prose tease like later, in Silence of the Lambs. Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris is sketchy, gives back story where it’s not necessary to give it: I can comprehend a character has problems without a segway slide into a 25 page history lesson about their nasty Grandma. That aside, it’s readable. An uneasy feat for someone averaging 1 book a year (on a good year). I know this makes me a bad person, but I’ve dealt with the residual guilt (and I’m dealing with it: Catholic school digs deep like Botox needles – who knows how far that stuff seeps?) But Red Dragon I read in a week.
The thing about it is, and this is part of the reason Silence of the Lambs is all the more successful as a film, is its protagonist, Will Graham, a retired cop, brought back to investigate a serial killer dubbed Tooth Fairy, is dull. He’s wicked smart, empathises with psychopaths like Hannibal Lecter, but ultimately has a haircut like nineties Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zack from Saved By The Bell, natch), and virtually no internal life. He’s so pliable, it’s actually easier to connect with the serial killer, whose eyes we see through, whose back story we’re Red Room of Pain-ed with, who next to Will Graham, is not only likeable, but we root for. I root for him. When he dates a girl at work, I want it to work out. When he quits killing, I want it to stick (even though his method is ridiculously plotted: he might be out of his mind, but dude does the plot take a strange turn.) When the book clumsily returns to Will Graham’s POV for the final 50 pages, I want Francis Dolarhyde back. I want him to take me to the tigers.
The conclusion, the climax, feels derogatory, mainly because every horror movie since has taken note from Harris, has clean ripped this off, so it feels all schlock-shock like the tacked on end of Carrie by Brian de Palma, not present in the book, for unsuspecting cinema audiences only. Will Graham becomes interesting in his fate, his ending, which doesn’t occur in either filmic translation: hideously deformed movie stars are in short supply, and as an ending, that’s just depressing right?
And Hannibal Lecter hardly appears. Our protagonist, Will, visits him for advice. They have history together (I wish romantic, WISH): Will caught Hannibal, solved the series of crimes Hannibal committed (the number of confirmed murders much smaller than the actual presumed number, something which the TV series has readdressed already.) And Hannibal carved Will up, almost killed him, didn’t. Hannibal in Red Dragon is mysterious prisoner, sage advice giver, lonely hearts’ letter writer, with a slew of Avid Fans. And surely he took hold of Harris the way he did Will, Clarice. Drew him back in, until he was centre stage, star.
The films handle Hannibal’s presence accordingly. Red Dragon (2002) ramps up the screen time, giving a heavily make-upped, and at times wigged, Anthony Hopkins, much dialogue and purpose, even letting his character out of his cell for some exercise in a sports’ hall (chained, but you never let Hannibal out, idiots). It smacks of getting money’s worth. It stings.
True to the book though it may be, even covering our antagonist’s back story, explaining in snippets why Francis is the way he is (as portrayed by a far too tall, Hollywoody Ralph Fiennes), it’s a paint-by-numbers job with a thick budget, like a robot movie for lovers of fine wine. And it’s directed by Brett Ratner, director of such terrifying films as Rush Hour 3 and Tower Heist. Will Graham here is less typical. Instead we get Edward Norton with a bad dye job, never quite convincing as a human being, or the police officer he apparently once was. Hopkins flirts, in ponytail flashbacks, tries to create chemistry with Norton, but he’s doing an impersonation of himself, and a bad one at that, his impression of what Hannibal would be like before Clarice, except he’s aged, and foundation, whatever shade, can’t back-track those years or make us believe this is a past life anymore than a Crimewatch reconstruction of third-hand events.
It’s comprehensive: shows too much, in the same way the book does. So completists might like it.
Manhunter (1986), an early take on Lecter, sees Brian Cox play him as academic, chillaxing in an art nouveau cell. He could easily be your English lecturer, whereas Hopkins is never fit for public consumption (heh), even when he’s entertaining guests at a dinner party, it’s bewildering they can’t see scraps of their friends protruding from his incisors. Hopkins has rabid eyes, but Cox plays it apathetic, any flirting suggestion he’s a serial killer delivered with a sigh, like Will Graham should just grow up already. “I gutted you. Shit happens, mate.”
Edward Norton may’ve had to peroxide his scalp to shit, but William Petersen is bonafide born beautiful. He’s Will Graham incarnate until he opens his mouth. I’m told he’s kind of a big deal these days, in one of those long running police procedurals, yadda-yadda-yadda. But I’ve not seen it, so I really only have Manhunter to go on. And I will never successfully erase him eighties-slow-mo-fucking-in-UV-white-sheets-as-the-sea-breeze-ruffles-his-pubic-hair. Plus, every line of his dialogue’s delivered like a steak sandwich. Functional, but flatter than that god damn stomach on Jennifer Aniston they keep saying’s a baby bump. Fuck you, chumps.
This is Michael Mann before he soiled himself with Colin Farrell. These are the good ol’ days, and they REALLY are. Once you get past the terrifying-for-the-wrong-reasons synth opener, this incarnation of Red Dragon is killer. Francis Dolarhyde is reincarnated here as too tall, genuinely bumbling, could give John Lithgow a run for his money. When he kills, we don’t expect it from him, because he passes so truly as a next door neighbour ready to lend eggs at your behest. His lair, which was a run-down orphange creep shack mansion in the book is transformed into an AWESOME condo, replete with modern art and surround sound to blow your socks right off. Nice crib, man. He’s softly spoken, barely deformed, marriage material (Problems, me? Nah.) Word is they even painted Dolarhyde’s legendary dragon tattoo (sound like a rip, much?) on this guy’s chest/back, but felt it was too wacky to fit with the film (there’s photographic proof below which doesn’t make the film).
Manhunter is lush in its fluorescents, its casting, its evolution of Francis Dolarhyde into a serial killer even Krueger would be proud of. He sits and listens to love songs in his car before a kill. This is the horror movie at its best. The 80s get forgiven for such a stalwart performance by Tom Noonan.
Hannibal (2013), created by Bryan Fuller, is stylistically different to its other incarnations. And so far we’re yet to hit on the Red Dragon storyline per se, but I hear it’s coming, if we make it to season 3 or 4. I actually can’t wait. Not only because that means 2 more years of sexual repartee between Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, but because they’ll give Francis the space he deserves, the screen time he should have, to grow into the man he’s fated to be (which I hope is Tom Noonan as played by Ryan Gosling. We can motherfucking dream).
The show, which starts as a simple police procedural, a different case each week, becomes an epic love story of sorts, between a cannibal and his best friend, who happens to work for the FBI. The show recasts male parts with women. Thank bloomin’ bejesus for Caroline Dhavernas as Dr. Alana, not Alan, Bloom, even if every cast member appears to want to fuck her, they cannot be blamed. Luckily, that woman has class and the restraint of Don Draper’s polar opposite. And Lara Jean Chorostecki as Freddie Loundes, I took a while to warm to, but she’s fearless, and fits Freddie better than even Philip Seymour Hoffman did. I can’t wait to see her quivering underbelly when Dolarhyde eventually exposes her for the fraud she really is.
Laurence Fishburne is a welcome addition to any cast (so desperately underused as Perry White in Man of Steel) and even Gillian Anderson is great – I worried she’d be that lost lady still prepared to fuck David Duchovny. She’s complicit, Hannibal’s confidante, and I love her. (He loves her so much he didn’t eat her…yet.)
I’m excited for where this show is going, that finally there’s a format that can do justice to its source material, in giving Lecter the screen time and backstory necessary, and surrounding characters to play that story out. Manhunter ended abruptly, for Dolarhyde anyway, (so did Collateral, while we’re at it, Michael Mann: you NEVER kill Cruise, dude) but Hannibal (2013) can run and run and run with it. I always thought that bit where the blind woman feels up the tiger was a bit weird, but in this twisty, macabre, permanently night-time version, I’ll allow it. As long as there are elks, and Hannibal Lecter stays sexy like the cast of Magic Mike naked in a bath tub of strawberry jelly and cream with disco lights making it impossible not to dance.